Reading Tolstoy’s book of late-period fables

Hello friendly friends! Just wanted to throw out there that there’s now a paperback version of the Cynical Guide. It has a few (three) little formatting niggles that I don’t love, and I will hopefully somehow figure out how to fix, but it looks shockingly like a real book. I mean, compared to the average micropress book, you pick this one up and you’re like…this is a book. I am extremely proud of it!

It’s honestly been surprising how much joy I’ve gotten from putting out the Cynical Guide. I always used to think people were just putting a good face on things when they talked about the satisfaction they got from micropress or indie publication, but today I was thinking that I actually want a photo of my cynical guide next to my two big five books. It’s possible I value the cynical guide even more than I do my novels, because: a) I think it offers more concrete value to the reader; and b) it doesn’t have a whole sales ecology devoted to giving it love, all it has is me. It’s like loving the runt of the litter. You love it because it’s going to have a much harder time in life.

ANYWAYS, I’ve been sick since at least Sunday. Nothing too serious. Either a cold (most likely) or a breakthrough COVID infection (unlikely, since I tested negative on our home rapid test and am vaccinated). A pretty gnarly cold though! Bad cough, chills, lots of congestion, fatigue: it didn’t feel great. I haven’t really been sick since COVID started, and it was a weird experience. I was like…if I’m ever well again…I’m gonna live life to the fullest.

Today I’m not exactly well again, but I’m not exactly living life to the fullest either. It did suck though. Kind of makes you think. Rachel’s old roommate left behind her book collection, and we’ve dutifully carried it from house to house (although I’ve pared it down only to the books I might conceivably want to read), and the other day I picked up her Penguin Classics copy of Tolstoy’s laaaaaaate fables. You know the ones I’m talking about: the stories from his “What Is Art?” period, late in his career, where he had disavowed all art that wasn’t explicitly moralistic and in touch with the people. Stories like “How Much Land Does A Man Need” and “What Men Live By”. Definitely the stories to read when you’re sick with a bad cold. Tolstoy really is a genius. Nobody else in the universe could write a story about an angel coming to earth and being sentenced by God to live on Earth until he figures out the reason for human suffering and…it’s a good story. It’s a really good story. At the high point of the story, the angel discovers the titular truth “What Men Live By” (hint, it’s other men’s kindness, people think they live by their own concern, but really they only live because everyone else has kindness and concern for them).

I also read a story about two peasants who get into a fight over a stolen egg, and the dad of one of the peasants keeps being like, “It doesn’t matter who stole the egg! Just apologize, jesus! This is gonna go too far!” And then it goes toooooo far.

And in one really enigmatic tale, two peasants go on a pilgrimage to the Ukraine, but one stops in at a hut for a drink of water and finds everyone in the hut is starving to death, so he stays and spends all his money to get them on their feet, and eventually he’s like welp it’s too late now, so he turns back and goes home, and the other peasant continues and goes on the pilgrimage, and nothing bad happens to him, really.

The morality of the tales isn’t in the least ambiguous or complicated. I’m not sure why Tolstoy is able to pull off stories that no other author could. I mean, they’re not really his best. They’re not even to the level of Ivan Ilyich (where, despite his epiphany, the titular character still must suffer and dies screaming), but there’s a simplicity and compassion in them.

I have to say though, as I was reading the story about the angel, which begins with a cobbler taking in the angel even though the cobbler himself hardly has enough to eat, I was thinking of a book I read about the Great Famine that hit North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union. During that famine, one survivor remembers “The good died first.” People who shared their food or tried to help others ended up dying. The people who thought only of themselves were more likely to survive. There is a reason that scarcity makes us vicious. I remember in that book, there’s a haunting story about a schoolteacher who watches her favorite student slowly starve to death over the course of a few weeks of class, and later on, whenever she sees someone in need, she thinks, “If I didn’t help my favorite student, why would I help this person.”

It’s a flaw. It’s a flaw with Tolstoy in general. I think it’s a flaw he always struggled with. His philosophy, to the extent it can be concretely explained, is simply not true. It does not explain the world. Simple peasant lives do not have an inherent dignity, nor are they inherently more satisfying. Nor is wealth inherently corrupting or enervating. Tolstoy was always trying to find some truth that would crystalize everything, and the reason it never came is because…well…it just doesn’t exist.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t make you believe in it at least for the span of a story. Reading his stories while I was sick, it really made me think. At another point, the angel is asked by a rich man to make a pair of boots, and the rich man keeps insisting that the boots must last for a year. And the angel smiles, but doesn’t tell anyone why.

Turns out that the angel could see his friend, the angel of death, standing behind the rich man. And the angel was thinking, it’s so strange that this rich man is thinking about next year, when in reality he’ll be dead before the day is done.

I mean, we all make plans for our lives, but we could be dead before the day is done. And we all bewail our fate, but really our fate is to die. The idea of fate has been making a lot more sense to me lately, especially in the context of the publishing world. A friend of mine is a literary writer and a PoC, and it feels like they’re always telling me about encounters with white people where the white person is like, “You’re so lucky that you’re brown, that’s all that publishing wants these days.”

And the truth is that…for a certain narrowly defined range of possibilities, it is an advantage to be brown. If you’re brown and you’re willing and able to write a multiculti book, then you have an easier path to publication than a white person who’s writing something people don’t want, like a historical novel about Ancient Sumeria.

But in other situations, being brown is a disadvantage. Like if you’re brown and writing brown characters, it’s a lot harder to sell a domestic thriller (unless you’re black, in which case a category is getting carved out as we speak). On a macro-level, we can talk about right and wrong, just and unjust, but on a micro-level, we just have our fate. And to a certain extent, all unsold books fail to sell for the same reason: publishers see no place for them on the shelves. If we take out the 80 percent that have no place because they’re poorly written or structured, then it’s just hard to say, well, you couldn’t sell this book because you’re white. What’s true is you couldn’t sell it because it has no hook, and if you were non-white, that could, in some cases, be a hook, but that ignores the fact that books aren’t widgets. It was your fate to write this book. This book that exists. You wrote it because it’s important. And sometimes your fate is to write a book that simply doesn’t accord with the dictates of the publishing industry. You could drop dead today of an aneurysm. The idea that we have any control over anything is a bit of an illusion. The idea that being white is a disadvantage is an idea that can only arise in the context of the meritocracy: if you write a book that’s good enough, then it’ll be published.

But meritocracy has little to do with writing and publishing books. It’s not about that at all. Writing is about inspiration and influence. Publishing is about fashion and trends. The intersection of the two will always be a matter more of fate than of merit.

Okay that was a bit of a ramble. I’m sort of hopped up on cough syrup right now. Buy my cynical guide!